The studio guitarist’s guide to happiness and personal fulfillment, as related by session ace Mitch Dalton. This month: When Mitchell Met Orville
You won’t be surprised to learn that I didn’t know much about Life, The Universe and Everything at the age of 10. Of course, the fact that Douglas Adams had yet to write the eponymous third instalment of his ‘six part trilogy’ may have been a contributory factor. My primordial preferences consisted mostly of egg and chips, kicking a ball about erratically with my mates and the noise that Hank Marvin made as Wonderful Land beamed down through the transistors of my tiny Kent radio. Egg and chips was favourite, to be fair. But some time after I had nagged my parents to fund lessons, I began to realise that there might be two distinct worlds operating in the guitar galaxy. Gorgeous radiophonic tones assailed my ears, played with an effortless facility by Hank B as he tripped the fret fantastic. Meanwhile, back on Planet Plectrum, I was struggling with a student model f-hole acoustic guitar with an action as high as Hendrix and strings as wide as Del Boy. Even my guitar teacher’s German manufactured Hofner Committee, a thing of beauty in its own right, couldn’t convey the drama of Man Of Mystery.
And for a sound reason, every pun intended. The chaps in these old fangled ‘groups’ like Billy J Kramer And The Dakotas, Gerry And The Pacemakers and no-hopers The Beatles were playing American guitars, admittedly in glorious black and white. The prime suspects seemed to be branded Fender and particularly, Gibson, although others like Gretsch, Guild and Rickenbacker featured too. Slowly the fog of fretting began to clear. I learned that these USA imported instruments were subject to crippling import tariffs as ‘luxury goods’ and hence unavailable to the pocket money based economy that I was operating at the time. I’d never seen one in real life, or Hackney as we called it back then.
However, I could and did send away for the Gibson brochure, courtesy of Henri Selmer & Co. Ltd, 114-116, Charing Cross Road, WC2. And back came three, with current prices enclosed on separate sheets.
In case you doubt the veracity of my account, you should know that I am both a hoarder and collector of borderline pathological proportions. And many of those with whom I have shared close relationships aren’t entirely convinced by the adjective ‘borderline’, either. In among the neatly classified box files that fill the loft, the shed and well, er…the entire house, you will eventually locate the letter ‘I’. From there it is but the work of moments to discover ‘Instrument Brochures’. And there they are. From Burns to Vox and back, there to locate that trio of gorgeous Gibsons. In the lavishly produced ‘Folk’ item you will find a dozen steel strung acoustics, eight classical guitars, seven banjos, three tenor guitars and two 12-strings. Such is the artistry and workmanship of this dazzling array that it leaps straight off the pages and buries itself deep in your psyche. The ‘Traditional’ catalogue is if anything more astounding, with its carved-top jazz acoustics, pedal steel guitars, mandolins and ukuleles. And so to the ‘Electric Guitars’, a booklet of grace and beauty, tastefully embellished on the cover in traditional non politically correct fashion by a young lady who looks as if she could demonstrate a number of useful skills, guitar playing not being one such. If you’re quick you’ll find it on eBay. For £130. For reference, an actual Gibson 330 is listed at ‘155 Guineas’ (£162.75, for you whippersnappers). The Gibson ‘Faultless’ case is 30 Guineas. Every page is a jaw dropper. From The Barney Kessel jazzer through to the ‘3’ series semis, the solidbody SGs, Firebirds and Thunderbirds and on, it’s easy to understand how an impressionable juvenile could be smitten.
Here’s a fascinating nugget of Anoraknophobia for you - The Les Paul model is not featured in the either price list or brochure. It had been discontinued in 1961, proving to be a commercial failure. In a supremely ironic episode in plucking history, a young British boy with a passing interest in the blues strung his secondhand model with inappropriate light gauge strings and the rest is mystery. Suffice it to say that Gibson was impelled to crank up production again in 68. It was to save the company several times, as any fule kno.
Those of my generation of fretting folk lived unwittingly through the golden age of American guitars. Back then ‘Collectible’ was an adjective which best described stamps and Routemaster bus numbers. The rules were simple. A second hand instrument was worth less than a new one. Just like a motor.
“GORGEOUS RADIOPHONIC TONES ASSAILED MY EARS, PLAYED WITH EFFORTLESS FACILITY BY HANK B AS HE TRIPPED THE FRET FANTASTIC”